Notes from the Steyerverse

Tom Steyer
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
April 5, 2022

At a sunset gathering last month, Tom Steyer convened a mix of some 75 fellow Democratic donors and operatives at his home in San Francisco’s secluded Sea Cliff neighborhood, replete with its sweeping, panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge, not far from Jack Dorsey and Marc Benioff. The purpose of the private reception, according to an invitation passed my way, was to introduce Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the new president of NextGen America, “for a reception and conversation on why the youth vote is key to winning in 2022.” Some guests snacked on vegan bites (Tzintzún Ramirez is vegan) while others received personally-inscribed books as party takeaways (Steyer is a big book-gifter).

What many guests also took away, however, was the distinct impression that NextGen is changing. Steyer, after all, has spent much of the last decade as the primary funder and figurehead of the advocacy group focused on climate activism and youth voter turnout. But when he approached the mic—bereft of his usual tartan tie, and shortly before his now-separated wife, Kat Taylor, sang a Texas-themed ditty, with specially-written lyrics read from her iPhone—Steyer told the crowd, to paraphrase an attendee, that he wanted to open the tent at NextGen, to make sure that the nonprofit he founded in 2013 would no longer be just a Tom Steyer operation. 

For Steyer’s inner circle, none of what he said was particularly dramatic: Steyer, a former hedge fund manager turned climate activist, who briefly ran for president, has been telegraphing these moves for some time. But for the broader audience in his literal backyard tent, the messaging—as well as the very decision to hold an event to cultivate more donors—spoke to Steyer’s small but meaningful repositioning within the high-dollar milieu of Democratic fundraising.

That impression was intentional. Indeed, Steyer and his group , according to people close to both, have recently developed the belief that NextGen needs to become a more self-sustaining organization and not so dependent on the largesse of its founder. NextGen has raised outside money and employed development staff since the beginning, but the current thinking around SteyerWorld is that Tom should be expected to account for about half of the organization’s funding, with the rest raised externally. (Staff have told some other operatives that Steyer will contribute about $15 million of the $30 million the group is seeking to raise this cycle.) 

Steyer is hardly the first Democratic billionaire to chart this course. Everytown for Gun Safety, which was founded by Mike Bloomberg in 2013, has since evolved into a broader Democratic activist group with a diversified donor base. And Steyer, like Bloomberg, remains a businessman in addition to a philanthropist. A few days after his Sea Cliff event, Steyer’s top aide passed the hat. “NextGen’s impact and scale is only possible if we have the necessary funds,” Tzintún Ramirez wrote in an email to prospective donors. Attached were instructions for wiring money.

The Steyer “Mindshare”

To be ultra-clear, Steyer is not stepping away from Democratic politics; he donated more than $3 million to his personal Tom Steyer PAC last year, and he’s still expected to contribute the plurality of the funding for NextGen going forward. But Steyer’s desire to de-center himself, from the organization and, perhaps, the spotlight, does surprise me. Steyer was famous, even before he ran for president, for starring in his own television ads; most mega-donors want to run away from the cameras, not towards them. And NextGen was very much a Tom Steyer show: Over the years, I’ve heard from people who occasionally chafed under Steyer’s direction, although that’s not an uncommon experience when you’re working with a headstrong billionaire donor who runs the place.

So why change now? Well, consider that Steyer has been engaged in hand-to-hand political combat for more than a decade. Unlike other climate philanthropists who concentrate on do-gooderism or funding the Big Greens, Steyer loves politics, seeing the bloody art of campaigning and super PACs as necessary to battling industry capture by Big Oil. Steyer spent an average of $35 million on politics per year from 2009 to 2017, according to his tax returns, and as much as $90 million during the 2016 cycle. With Trump’s election, he expanded NextGen’s remit from climate to youth voter turnout, while also trying to build a movement to impeach the 44th president. Along the way, he became the single-biggest Democratic donor in some cycles, up there with Bloomberg and George Soros. And that was all before he ran up a $340 million bill when he ran for president, the proximate cause for Steyer’s decision to leave the NextGen board.

In the aftermath of Biden’s election, Steyer has been thinking more seriously about how he should spend his time, according to people close to him. The politics of climate, his true passion, look a lot different now from when he started this work at the dawn of the Obama administration. “His mindshare for the last ten years has been: how do we get the politics of climate right in the first place? His mindshare now is: how do we fund the next generation of companies to solve for this?” a person in Steyer’s orbit told me. “We’ve gotten politics where it needs to be on the Democratic side.”

And so last year, Steyer launched a new climate-focused investment shop called Galvanize, partnering with Katie Hall, a top Silicon Valley wealth manager and longtime Steyer friend. To some extent, the move connoted a new theory of change: Political advocacy is important, but so is private-sector innovation. Part of Steyer’s rationale, according to someone who has spoken with his team, is that he has not seen enough progress yet on climate purely through political investing. The upshot is that Steyer is still a political animal and relishes the game, but after largely carrying the Democratic climate world on his back for a decade, he wants to refocus, and is maybe a little tired.

Passing the Torch

Steyer’s new lease on life is not just “different vibes” for NextGen as one person put it—there’s real structural change afoot. I’m told that Steyer is expanding the board of NextGen, starting with Andrea Evans, a top official at the Bay Area anti-homelessness nonprofit Tipping Point, who spoke at last month’s event. (Evans is married to Chris Lehane, the Clinton operative and former Airbnb executive, who also happens to be Steyer’s longtime confidante.) Last May, NextGen also quietly spun out a 501c3, a tax-exempt group that broadens the pool of possible supporters by allowing NextGen to raise money from private foundations for less overtly political programming.

Meanwhile, some in the Steyerverse are looking ahead to who could be the next Steyer. One candidate for Democratic mega-donor preeminence, as I’ve written before, is Sam Bankman-Fried, the wunderkind crypto C.E.O. with massive political ambitions on a crusade to get the U.S. to spend more on pandemic prevention. Interestingly, I am told that the project is being guided in part by Jenna Narayanan, the former top fundraising official at NextGen. Another longtime Steyer aide, Chris Lehman, a California ballot initiatives expert, is also involved in his work. Narayanan and Lehman are new additions to a team helmed by Gabe Bankman-Fried, Sam’s brother, and Mike Sadowsky, a donor-adviser who, like S.B.F., comes from the world of effective altruism. (Another previously unreported, non-Steyer aide on S.B.F.’s pandemic projects, I’m told, is Dave Huynh, the delegate math expert known in Democratic circles as “Delegate Dave.”) After all, cost-per-vote obsessives like S.B.F. could learn a thing or two from both the successes and failures of Steyer, whose nonprofit registered more than 1 million voters, and helped to flip dozens of congressional seats, although sometimes at great cost.

I know some Democrats who see all this change as a tectonic shift in big-money politics, and who may fear that Steyer’s decoupling from NextGen means they’ll have to keep an eye on yet another big group whose budget now has to be secured each cycle. But there is so much Silicon Valley money in political philanthropy right now, to say nothing of climate philanthropy, that it is almost possible to forget about Steyer. I know I often do. Sure, he’s a titan of San Francisco, but he’s a hedgie, not a techie—and Steyer, a 64-year-old Exeter graduate, is the old-guard. There’s a whole universe of other funders out there—the next, new winners of the innovation economy—to pick up the tab. If NextGen can become a blue-chip legacy organization for the left, a piece of infrastructure like Planned Parenthood or the League of Conservation Voters, I think they’ll be fine.